Adding to the Great White Walls

Imp Con 1897 cover page

Imperial Conference[1] 

In June-July 1897 the premiers of the self governing colonies of the empire met with the Rt. Hon Joseph Chamberlain, M.P. (Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the colonies) at the Colonial Office, Downing Street London to discuss such empire-wide matters as postal communications, naval defence, the Pacific cable, treaties with Japan and Tunis, the forthcoming Paris Exhibition of 1900, and alien immigration.

The desire for preferential trade within the empire and more such conferences were among the leading resolutions resulting from this meeting. But after a heated discussion on whether Saturday or Wednesday was the best day to dispatch the mail the Premiers turned their attention to alien immigration and Australian immigration specifically.

The context of this particular discussion arose from the attempts after a Sydney conference 18 months previously of the Australian Premiers and New Zealand to extend their existing anti-Chinese immigration restrictions to a much wider range of people. These restrictions had been extended to all persons of:

coloured race inhabiting the Continent of Asia or the Continent of Africa or any island adjacent thereto, or any island in the Pacific Ocean or the Indian Ocean.[2]

A number of exemptions had been provided including the “natives of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand”, as well as “missionaries, native teachers, tourists, merchants, men of science or students”.[3]

This similar legislation[4] by each individual Australian colony and New Zealand had been reserved by the British Government, and at this London meeting counter proposals were to be put as to the nature and form of any such restrictions.

The Secretary of State opened the discussion by declaring he was anxious that nothing be done “injurious” or “unnecessarily offensive” to “our Indian fellow subjects” although he admitted that he could not pretend that his suggested solution was satisfactory to them. Chamberlain’s solution, the adoption of the “Natal legislation”, did he thought at least “avoid stigmatising them by name as unfit for civilised life.” (A generous admission.)[5]

The Natal legislation was a test of a person’s ability to write in English, a test given selectively and introduced in the Natal colony (later part of the South Africa Union) specifically to exclude “Indian fellow subjects”. Chamberlain proposed that the then still separate Australian colonies introduce uniform legislation based on that of Natal to enable them to “exclude the class of immigrants you think would be undesirable in Australia”.[6]

The British government had refused assent to the anti-alien legislation of the Australian colonies previously and this had angered many. Reid the New South Wales Premier declaring that he thought the previous exemptions introduced, including “merchants” was wide enough to “remove much of that objectionable appearance”.[7] That Reid could imagine that such exemptions as he listed, tourists and ministers of religion, as well as merchants but not hawkers, made such race based legislation less objectionable in appearance indicates the heavy class based nature of his thinking. People in classes below those mentioned simply did not count as far as he was concerned.

Reid felt the whole issue was too “vital” to be dealt with as Chamberlain proposed and declared:

We cannot veil the issue in that way. We really feel in this legislation, situated as we are so near these hundreds of millions of coloured people, that we must set up at once a clear barrier against the invasion of coloured labour …”. “… we are sternly resolved that there shall be a white Australia”.[8]

Reid took the point that specifying races and peoples was likely to lead to offense but felt that the Japanese would not object “as long as we do not couple them with the Chinese”. We have “this coloured flood coming in upon us” he declared dramatically. But he was also keenly aware of British disingenuousness on this issue and pointed out that the number of Chinese people in NSW would in proportion represent 500,000 in Britain itself and asked what would be the result if even 10,000 Chinese people or “Chinamen” as he put it arrived in Britain to settle. He answered his own question with “you know the convulsion that would create”.[9]

As Premier Reid put it “we are right next door to China” and “we wish to preserve unmistakeably the character of Australian colonisation as that of the British race.” This Reid felt was better done by exclusion than by having numbers of people enter who then might be “treated brutally” and result in consequent greater embarrassment for the Imperial Government. (Presumably embarrassment that the nature of that British race would be thus exposed).[10]

The Secretary of State referred to New Zealand legislation as different because it excluded British subjects. Chamberlain recognised that the Australian colonies wished to exclude not only Chinese and Japanese but also Indians who were British subjects and so once again pressed the case for exclusion based on “them not as Indians, but as persons who from their pauper condition, or from ignorance, are unfitted to colonise in your country”. He then went on to make the vaguest of promises to do all he could to discourage immigration from India by “pointing out the difficulties they would at present subject themselves to, and the improbability they would be received”.[11]

But even if Reid took such blandishments at face value he was having none of it, explaining that Chinese people came under conditions and arrangements that meant they did not arrive as paupers, and that it would be “trifling with the gravity of the subject” to open “the country up to all coloured persons who could get up sufficient English to write in a certain form”. The serious concern for Reid being race rather than the pretence of class that Chamberlain was pushing. For both men it should be noted there was no hint that the test would not be real for those it was selectively applied to. For Reid having such a test, real or not, was an evasion that was “beneath our intention”.[12]

Despite the level of “intention” the debate over race and class took a downward turn when Premiers Reid of NSW, and Braddon of Tasmania who claimed, “long experience in India”, declared that an “Indian influx” would be “much worse” than a “Chinese or Japanese influx” with Reid “assuring” his fellow Premiers that those who came from India were “the most undesirable perhaps”, with Braddon doubling up on this grand sweep of stereotypes by adding that there are “a great many undesirable persons in India”. Chamberlain readily agreeing that certainly “there can be no possible objection to your excluding undesirable persons” (even presumably if that included all “our Indian fellow subjects”).[13]

Finally Reid seized on the point that Japan had recently signed a treaty with Queensland in which it agreed to the exclusion of Japanese labourers “whether right or wrong” and asked if Her Majesty’s Government “representing” the Indian Empire would be “equally kind” given “this is a matter vitally affecting the character of our civilisation and race”.[14]

Chamberlain attempted to argue a previously agree “preferential treatment” for British subjects but a number of Premiers, including Forrest of Western Australia and Kingston of South Australia, were adamant this never included Indian subjects. Reid continued to argue in favour of strong action that “sets up a wall for ever”, citing Japan as an example of a country that in the future might give difficulties if this was not done now. However the Premier of Tasmania now began to signal his willingness to accept the “educational test” as sufficient to exclude 270,000,000 Indians with the remaining 10,000,000 he felt unlikely to wish to come to the colonies.[15]

George Turner the Premier of Victoria emphasised that the preference was for “direct” methods over the “roundabout” proposals of the Colonial Secretary. After which the Premier of Queensland, Hugh Nelson then set out the case for individual legislation as being of greater value and flexibility. He mentioned the restrictions already in place for Chinese immigrants, the treaty with Japan and Queensland’s “Polynesian” legislation, which he claimed was both “assisting the white men” and “benefitting the Polynesian”. The WA Premier added, after Nelson had explained the co-operation of the Japanese government in controlling the numbers of Japanese labourers entering Queensland, that he thought the Japanese “are all very civil, there is no doubt about that”.[16]

The rest of the discussion concerned repeating that exclusion of “coloured races” was agreed on and that the issue now was merely method. Also that non-British subjects was not an issue, but coloured British subjects were. Reference was made to the Sydney conference of 18 months previously and to the value of a united Australia in pressuring the British Cabinet.[17] Reid then proposed a roundabout method of his own in which exclusion of British subjects would be left out of any Act and instead be made discretionary.[18]

Chamberlain was not happy with this suggestion or with Reid’s attempted solution on his return to NSW, which was to introduce two separate Bills. One that extended the Chinese restrictions to all other “coloured races” but exempted British subjects and another that imposed the Natal “educational test” on anyone else. Chamberlain felt that this still left the question of Japanese sensitivity unanswered and “begs that Japanese may be included on same terms as British Indian subjects”.[19]

As summarised in the NSW media the end result was:

… one of the principal items of business which required his [Premier Reid’s] presence in London at the diamond jubilee festivities was the necessity of discussing with Mr. Chamberlain the granting of the royal assent to the Aliens Bill of last year. The royal assent was not granted, but the Premier’s visit to England resulted in his ascertaining the terms upon which the royal assent would be given to a measure having for its object the restriction of undesirable coloured immigrants. Mr. Reid accordingly has brought in a bill to extend the provisions of the Chinese Restriction and Regulation Act to other coloured races, British subjects, however, being exempt from its provisions. In order that the influx of British coloured subjects should be restricted, the Premier has had drafted the Immigration Restriction Bill. The latter provides for the application of an educational test which it is hoped will serve, among other purposes, that of greatly restricting the arrivals of British black or brown subjects at the ports of this colony.[20]

[1] Colonial Office, Report of a conference between the Rt. Hon Joseph Chamberlain, M.P. (Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the colonies) and the premiers of the self governing colonies of the empire at the Colonial Office, Downing Street London, in June and July, 1897 ; with appendices. (Colonial Office, September 1897). [State Archives of NSW]

[2] Report of a conference, p.162.

[3] Report of a conference, p.162.

[4] Though not identical, New Zealand had not included Africa or the Pacific, and Tasmania had specified only males were affected. Another interesting note is that the Colonial Office felt some exemptions were not wide enough to allow Indian troops to operate in Australia should it be necessary to “expel an invader”. Report of a conference, p.163.

[5] Report of a conference, p.130.

[6] Report of a conference, p.130.

[7] Report of a conference, p.130.

[8] Report of a conference, p.131.

[9] Report of a conference, p.131.

[10] Report of a conference, p.131-132.

[11] Report of a conference, p.132.

[12] Report of a conference, p.132-133.

[13] Report of a conference, p.133.

[14] Report of a conference, p.134.

[15] Report of a conference, p.135.

[16] Report of a conference, p.135-137.

[17] Report of a conference, p.137-138.

[18] Report of a conference, p.139.

[19] Agent General for NSW, 14th October 1897, quoting Chamberlain.

[20] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Friday 26 November 1897 p.4.

In Archive